Brett: then and now

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By | Digital Developments, From the Collections

Roger Graef is a distinguished theatre producer, documentary film maker and founder of the production company Films of Record. He curated a programme of films around science on film for the 75th anniversary of the Wellcome Trust in 2011. It was then I had the opportunity to reacquaint Roger with his first foray into documentary film-making, One of Them is Brett, made for what was then The Society for the Aid of Thalidomide Children. The film had been donated to the Wellcome Library as part of The Thalidomide Society’s archive (Wellcome Library reference: SA/TSY).

Film still from One of Them is Brett

Brett at 4 years old. Still from the film One of Them is Brett.

Graef offered to create a film for the Society to demonstrate that children affected with the drug were capable of being educated in state primary schools (as evidenced in the film by Brett himself, born with no arms, behaving as a normal four year child but using his feet). The film was successful in this aim and it was also widely acclaimed creatively and broadcast in the UK by the BBC, in the US on ABC and in Canada on CBC.

The film (a single 16mm print) from the Thalidomide Society archive was in reasonable physical condition, but the film had been copied many times, collecting scratches and dirt along the way. Luckily, the British Film Institute National Archive held master materials donated to them by the production company, Derrick Knight & Partners. The BFI’s Unlocking Film Heritage programme had already selected this title for digitisation to make it more widely available for public viewing as part of their thematic stream about disability in 2017.

In light of the film’s significant historical value, permission to access the original camera and sound negative elements was given, the film was prioritised in their work flow and awarded the highest digitisation grant possible (with a contribution from Wellcome Library). In fact, around ten different actions were applied to the original elements to create a digital file master – from manually bench checking and repairing the material, ultrasonically cleaning it, grading, restoration and scanning (to 2k) as well as further work on the audio. Here is the restored version:


Fifty years after the original film was made in 1965, Roger Graef was commissioned by the BBC to go to Australia and make another documentary: Brett: a life with no arms. It draws heavily on the evocative (and poignant) archive material from the original 1965 film, which features the insightful voice-over of Brett’s mother, Barbara, who together with her husband Peter Nielsen transported the family to the UK to access better support for Brett.


Brett in 2015. Image credit: copyright Films of Record 2015.

To coincide with the transmission of the programme on 13 October, on BBC1 at 22:35 (GMT+1), Brett has returned to London and he has been upbeat about his life to date. He is completing a new album of music (his career has spanned radio DJ-ing, music production, motivational speaking and driving a digger-for-hire). His music is widely acclaimed and released under his own label Big Toe Music.

Angela Saward

Angela Saward is curator of the Moving Image and Sound Collection at the Wellcome Library.

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